Tomás ó Sé: 'Con - A Magic Man with the kindest heart'
After nearly half a century as doctor for Cork GAA, City Hall will be jammed this evening to honour one of a kind
"You should really write a book ya know!" I said to him the other day. And Dr Con looked at me as if I'd suggested running naked down Patrick Street just for the craic. "Yerra, not a hope Tomás," he says, laughing at the very thought of it. "Sure 'twould bring down the feckin' nation!"
You've reached a rare status in GAA circles when the public dispenses with your surname, something that happened a long time ago with the great 'Weesh' Murphy's son, Con. Put it this way, players, former players and officials from every one of Cork's fiercest rivals will descend in droves on City Hall this evening to honour, in my opinion, one of the greatest GAA men alive.
Think about that. Kerry lads falling over themselves to help fund Cork's GAA future and I'll be one of them. We'll be gathering out of a monumental regard for Con. Love I suppose really. Because if ever a man's story transcended county boundaries, this is one.
I grew up in a house where football was king and, of course, our uncle Páidí meant we had a national hero in the family. But even in my childhood, I was aware of this legendary figure in Cork, this 'Dr Con' who would solve any injury problems a player had the misfortune to get. He was the man to fix you.
Himself and the uncle were thick as thieves, often talking on the phone for hours. Páidí always referred to him by his initials 'CP' and it was Con who got him his first training job with UCC. I suppose what you quickly came to realise with Dr Con was that the medical expertise, the wisdom, was nearly the least of what he gave you. I mean he's spent a lifetime stitching lads' wounds, reassuring them, listening.
And yet he's always measured that extraordinary input into Cork GAA life by what he's received, not given. The friendships. The roguish escapades. The loyalties. The fun.
When I finished school, I really hadn't a clue what I wanted to do, but Con's family lived on the Western Road and were always affiliated with UCC. So I applied for a scholarship course in the college. Myself and Kerry colleague Aodán MacGearailt were both interviewed for it, Páidí announcing confidently that 'Con will look after that!'
Now I don't know what kind of pull Páidí thought Con had, but I didn't get the scholarship and, instead, ended up doing teaching at Mary Immaculate in Limerick! Aodán, without any pull, got the spot in UCC. The thing is, Con could sort out just about any physical problems he was presented with. Academic ones were a bit trickier.
But Páidí (below) just thought he walked on water.
There's another story of a famous Kerry football family being desperate to get one of their boys into UCC, but knowing he hadn't the points from his Leaving to get anything worthwhile. Again, they reckoned if anyone could work some magic for them, Con would be the man.
So the call was put through. What could he get their man into?
There was a pause on the end of the line, before Con responded. "We could maybe get him to do a bit of gardening!"
The unique thing about Con I found across the years is that I never felt anything but comfortable talking to him in the week of a Kerry-Cork Munster final. Now I might have been like a bear with a sore head in the company of other Cork people, but even two days before the game I'd happily sit down with Con.
Like, I always knew he was black in his devotion to Cork, just as I was in mine to Kerry. He'd want them to win with every last fibre in his body. But he'd always open the conversation with a joke or a slag of some sort. With other Cork people, I'd be borderline vicious. With Con, I always felt I could just be myself. Which was a fair achievement.
I mean for the 70 minutes of a Munster final against Cork, the energy between the counties wouldn't be far short of hatred. But we'd be warming up beforehand and Con would be out on the field looking to make eye contact.
"How's the form Seamo? Good man Fitz! What's the craic Gally?"
He knew us all, but I'd always refuse to look over at him. I didn't want to acknowledge him until the game was over.
I spent four years in Mary I before moving to Cork in 2001. And the same people always looked after me once I landed on Leeside. Neasa Long became my physio; Con my doctor.
Listen we had great medical people in Kerry too, but nobody with Con's connections. An example? I went to see him on the Monday after doing a cartilage in my knee and was being operated on in Waterford that Tuesday. "I'll sort it!" was (still is) his everyday expression. But I consider the man, above all, an incredible friend. I'd say I laugh more in his company than in anyone else's. When we were in Australia together for the International Rules in 2005, he was like a Mother Hen to us all. Looking out for us. Minding us.
I have this vivid memory of arriving back to the hotel with him around 7am once and, as Con was getting out of the taxi, I announced that I was wasn't quite ready for bed yet. So in he goes without me and I can still see his shoulders shaking with the laughter as he walked.
He's been Cork's doctor for 43 years now and it must beggar belief just how much the medical side of the GAA has changed in that time. But one thing will always stay the same. The importance of people skills. Con has those in spades.
I think it's fair to say he's never charged a UCC student a single penny for visits to his clinic. He's always just sorted people. Cared for them.
A huge number of Kerry county players would have gone through the college across the years, just as you'd have Tipperary, Limerick, Clare or Waterford hurlers. And Con would have built up huge relationships with people like Nicky English, who won five Fitzgibbons with UCC.
You think of what must have felt like poison between Meath and Cork footballers in the late '80s, early '90s, yet last week Gerry McEntee and Colm O'Rourke dropped down to Cork to take Con out for dinner and a few pints. They can't make it tonight, but they didn't want to let the occasion pass without doing something.
That sums up Con to me. Sums up his ability to reach out across often rigid county barriers.
When my dad died suddenly in 2002, the first person I met coming off the field after Cork beat us in the Munster final replay was Con. I was fairly emotional and Con just reached in towards me, said a quick word and kept walking. A tiny gesture, but perfect.
I've had tough times in my life on a personal level since and he's always been there for me.
Honestly, I feel I could go to that man with any problem and he'll reassure me that things will be ok. That's a rare gift. I'd say I could nearly murder someone and he'd still make me feel that he had my back.
His father, 'Weesh' was from Bere Island and, while people see something poetic in the image of Mick O'Connell rowing over from Valentia to play with Kerry, 'Weesh' did the same for Cork and Munster. At a time the Railway Cup was huge, he'd row in from Bere Island, cycle to Bantry, then get a taxi to Cork. He was great buddies with the Kerry full-back of the time, Joe Keohane. They both hated playing corner-back, so they'd agree between themselves that whoever won Munster that year would get the number three Railway Cup jersey.
The loser went to the corner.
'Weesh' was full-back on the team that won the All-Ireland in '45, Cork's first since 1911, and was posthumously named in that position on Cork's 'Team of the Millennium'.
A vet by profession, he was chairman of the Munster Council when he dropped dead suddenly on his way to a victory dinner for the Limerick hurlers after their All-Ireland final defeat of Kilkenny in '73.
Three years after his father's death, Con was a junior doctor in Tralee General Hospital when first asked to look after Cork's hurlers and footballers. While there, he also befriended some of the great Kerry team and, if any of them needed a scan done quickly, they'd call Con. He became their go-to man.
Mick O'Dwyer (below) eventually got wind of this and decided that, once Cork were out of the championship, he wanted Con to share the Kerry medical duties with the team's official doctor, Dave Geaney.
And it's maybe not commonly known then that he ended up in the Kerry dug-out for four All-Ireland finals in that capacity. They were different, more innocent times I suppose and he tells a story of chatting to Mike Sheehy at half-time in the 1980 final against Roscommon, complimenting him on his first-half, Hill end goal.
Mikey looked at him blankly. "What goal?" he asked.
Con reckoned instantly that Mikey was concussed and went straight out to Micko. "Listen," he said, "you've to take Mikey off straight away!"
"He's concussed, he has no recollection of even scoring that goal!"
"So what's the problem?" replies Micko. "Sure can't we show it to him tomorrow!"
Now that story isn't intended to trivialise concussion, not by a long chalk. I tell it more to emphasise the broad innocence of that time. After all, Ger Power had a really bad hamstring injury going into that final. The Friday before the game, Power - Kerry's captain - was driven to Cork to have a fitness test under Con's supervision.
Think about this now. Not a sinner from the Kerry management present, their absolute trust placed in Con. He knew Power, at best, would need an injection to play, but - even with that - was hugely pessimistic. Ger, though, wouldn't entertain a word of negativity.
"Con," he says, "I'm starting this game come Hell or high water!"
I think the rule at the time was, if you didn't start the game, you couldn't go up to collect the Cup. Anyway, Con passed Ger fit to play, gave him that injection in the dressing-room, telling Micko, 'Look, be prepared to make a change because that man will not last!"
And Power - his hamstring in bits - got up those steps to collect Sam in the end.
In more recent times, Kerry players had access to the Kingsley Hotel gym in Cork, a lovely five-star facility with pool and sauna. Paul Galvin was just getting into his tattoos and had this big one on his shoulder, bearing some kind of Latin proverb. Con would always join us in the gym, but only to use the jacuzzi. And he'd be staring at Galvin's shoulder, trying to make out the message.
One day, he said to me he thought it might be some kind of a trick tattoo, something you could only read through the reflection in the mirror. "Get Galvin over near the mirror and we'll see what it says," he told me. So here I am on this particular evening, talking pure rubbish to Galvin and all the time trying to manoeuvre him closer to the mirror.
And there's Con, neck craned, looking to read Galvin's tattoo over his shoulder. He glanced over at me afterwards. "F**k it, still couldn't make out a word, Tomás..."
I was playing golf with him another day in Little Island, the poshest club in Cork. We were on this hole running parallel to the car park when I completely over-clubbed my approach to the green, slicing the ball and - next thing - there was this awful smashing sound from the car park. Con, just about to address his own ball, looks over at me.
"Get your clubs, we're out of here!" he roared, already breaking into a trot. "Knowing my luck, you've probably hit a car belonging to the sharpest barrister in Cork!"
There's a story too that he was asked at a medical conference once if he'd ever saved anybody's life on a GAA field. After a long pause, Con replied that indeed he had. Asked to describe the event, he told them: "When the final whistle went in the drawn 1988 All-Ireland football final (Brian Stafford having scored a controversial late equaliser for Meath), I saved the referee Tommy Sugrue's life by intercepting Billy Morgan.
"If I hadn't, Tommy was not walking off that field!"
That'd be Con in a virtual war-zone, yet he's got one of the softest hearts of anyone I know too. His love for sons, Brian, Cian and Colm, is always worn on his sleeve. He worships the ground they walk on. Likewise his devotion to wife, Joan.
So I'm really glad they've organised this evening now for a man I consider one of my truest friends. For what it's worth, I believe that something's stirring in Cork. I can feel it. Give them four or five years and I genuinely believe they'll have a football team challenging for the All-Ireland. Like I've really no idea how the huge overspend on Páirc Uí Chaoimh was allowed happen, but there's still the sense of a movement growing. Of Cork organising themselves.
If they get it right, which I believe they will, there's a big pool of talent in the county still waiting to be tapped.
Tonight's function in the City Hall has been organised by Cairde Chorcaí, a fundraising body with real heavyweight business people involved, people I know who have been hugely active right across America.
They're an entirely separate body to the county board who, themselves, have shown an energy for change with that 'Cork Football 2024' plan.
So something's changing here.
That said, I asked Con recently what was the biggest change he'd seen in his time with the GAA and he was unequivocal that it was the pressure being placed on players.
Con's view is that a lot of them are at breaking point. The natural accumulation of injuries today is on an entirely different level to what was commonplace in the 1970s.
In the last six months alone, he's seen three Cork players undergo what were, effectively, career-saving surgeries. Bodies, he says, are being pushed to the limit these days. And people should listen to him when he says that because I don't believe there's a GAA man alive better qualified to raise the alarm.
"What on earth will I say Tomás?" he asked me last week about tonight's gig. "Just be yourself Con!" I answered. Meant it too.
But, lord Christ, that book would be some read!
Patience needed with experimental rules and Central Council now needs to show it
If I have one piece of advice for Central Council delegates today as they consider their next move on football's experimental rules, it's this: Hold your nerve.
Players and coaches aren't the people who should dictate what happens next. Their aims, naturally, are self-interested and short-term. That's not their fault. But our games belong to everybody, they belong to the whole GAA community.
And, like it or not, Gaelic football ceased to be a spectacle some time ago. To be perfectly honest, I've no great issue with any of the changes we've seen in pre-season competition.
The three handpass restriction? Maybe stretch it to four, but don't abandon it.
But consider this. If a team loads 14 bodies into their own half, the three handpass restriction then presents them with a quandary in possession.
Bodies With nobody in the opposition half, they can't kick long. And they'll probably run out of handpasses by the time they're on their own '45.
In that scenario, a penny, surely, has to eventually drop. 'We have to leave some bodies up there!'
People need to start looking at this long-term and, at the very least, let's see how it works in the National League.
Managers, players and even the GPA have all been heaping pressure on Central Council to abandon the experiment. I honestly hope they don't.
Listen, things might even get uglier before they get better, but the new rules are well intentioned and, face it, the vast majority of people believe something is needed to make our game more attractive.
It's Central Council's duty to listen to their voices.